Last year, when I last (and first, actually) visited Canada I was desperately keen to go to Vancouver Island. I had heard all sorts of wonderful things about how beautiful it was, but sadly discovered that it wasn’t a quick ferry trip away, and warranted much more than a half day trip. Given that, I was very pleased make up for the omission on this trip and have just spent three days there checking out as much as I could. The city of Victoria, on the island, is actually the capital of British Columbia and, while not the largest, is one of the oldest cities – with British settlement beginning in 1843. It has managed to retain many of its striking historic buildings, the two most imposing of which are the Legislative Buildings and the absolutely enormous Empress Hotel – the latter of which I’m told is built on marshy land and is slowly sinking.
The harbour is truly beautiful and extraordinarily busy with a constant stream of tour boats, harbour taxis, pleasure craft, kayakers and rowers, seaplanes – and traffic of the more feathered variety. It is possible to walk almost all around the harbour on a waterside path that takes one into the central city area or, tucked away just past the inner harbour, to the buzzy fishermans wharf area. This great little spot is a working wharf and has shopping, eco-tour adventures, fresh seafood available straight off the boats or seafood cafes where you can grab some lunch. It also has the cutest little houses right out on the water. Some seem to be available for rent, but others are clearly lived in and much loved. These interesting homes vary from the very sweet to the somewhat quirky.
My own accommodation was a little more traditional and I was very comfortable at The Inn at Laurel Point. I was very spoiled – staying in a stunning harbour-view room with a vast and splendid bathroom. Situated on the point between Inner Harbour and Victoria Harbour, The Inn is smart, modern and a very comfortable walking distance from both the bars, restaurants and shops of the downtown area on one side, or Fishermans wharf on the other. And for those who don’t feel like a stroll, the very cute little water taxis are never far away.
On my first night I struggled badly with the effects of a 4 am start from home, a 14 hour flight and crossing the international dateline and had plans for a quick, early dinner and bed. However, the menu in the hotel restaurant, Aura, was just too tempting. The lure of the fresh, wild seafood was too much and after 3 courses, including a stunning deep-fried, deconstructed sushi dish with albacore tuna and silky, fresh scallops I wandered off to bed much later than intended.
After completely upsetting my morning plans by managing to oversleep the next day (no surprises there, I suppose) I spent what was left of the morning happily exploring this very pretty city before meeting up with Alexis Ragan of Off the Eaten Track food tours. Now, there’s nothing I like more than a food tour in a city that’s new to me (or even one that’s not) – I think food is simply the best way to get to know a place, understand where it is coming from and to bond with the locals. Alexis is Victoria born and bred, but very happily lived in Australia for quite a while – more than we actually had invited her for it seems, as she found out when she overstayed her welcome and was politely asked to leave. She started Off the Eaten Track in Vancouver, where she now lives, and has recently begun offering tours in her home town too. She likes to take small groups into areas of the city that they might not necessarily ever see and connect them with some of the outstanding food/drink businesses that only a local will know about.
Our tour was in the Oak Bay area and we started off by visiting a remarkable coffee business called Discovery Coffee. Established in the city in 2006, Discovery Coffee has now expanded the original site to include a roastery, a bakery so they can produce their own baked goods, a pottery where the owner makes her special coffee and tea ware and a training facility for their staff. The city premises are now licensed and they have gone on to open two more stores – with one in Oak Bay. Discovery has made enormous efforts to provide an excellent, but sustainable cup of coffee – ensuring a fair price for the grower by buying their beans from the source (and often buying the whole crop) wherever possible, or by using trusted brokers. Their staff take great pride in their skills and will go to any length to provide the best possible cup of coffee (or tea), with one of them showing us a very specialised halogen brewing method which resulted in a sophisticated, nuanced coffee which I (who hasn’t had a cup of coffee in over 6 years) honestly enjoyed.
We went from there to The Whole Beast, an artisan salumeria which uses locally bred, free-range Berkshire/Tamworth pigs. The owner, who is chef-trained, has a particular passion for pigs and is actively engaged in encouraging the local production of Tamworth pigs, a breed which is considered to be close to endangered. From there we moved on to Vis a Vis, a local wine bar and restaurant, a delicious little patisserie, a candy store (squeals of delight) and finished our trip with a crab smash at the Marina Restaurant at Oak bay Marina. Not at all stuffy, as some marina eateries can be, this beautifully positioned restaurant has a popular sushi bar and free-loading seals who were very inquisitive when we went out to fetch our own crab from the water! We apologised to him as he was carried off to the kitchen and then enjoyed him with an ice cold beer a short time later.
Showing dedication above and beyond the call of duty, Alexis offered to take me out for a cocktail or two after I had mentioned that, being as I was so well brought up, I wouldn’t be able to hang around in bars on my own. We dropped in to the gorgeous Bengal Lounge at the aforementioned Empress Hotel. It is stunningly decked out with a British Raj theme (dead wildlife included) and offers heavenly cocktails with impeccable service. Just be aware – this does not come cheap!
Lambs Ears and Honey was a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission, The Inn at Laurel Point and Tourism Victoria.